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All-flash arrays, NAND engineering among 2014 flash highlights

Startups and legacy vendors alike rolled out all-flash platforms to highlight 2014 in flash, underscoring solid-state's steadily increasing footprint in the enterprise.

Solid-state storage was clearly a mainstream technology in 2014, and will become even more so in 2015. The rise of all-flash storage arrays (AFAs) has coincided with advances in NAND engineering and the evolution of standards for PCI Express-based SSDs, while server-side cache is being used increasingly to accelerate selected application workloads.

Analyst firm Storage Strategies Now (SSG-Now) predicted enterprise solid-state drive (SSD) spending would top $10 billion in 2014. "That's a staggering sum when you consider that just a couple years ago we were looking at an $800 million flash run rate," SSG-Now senior analyst James Bagley said.

Here is a look at the five biggest flash highlights of 2014.

5. Triple-level cell NAND gets some TLC

Triple-level cell (TLC) nonvolatile NAND flash memory is less expensive than multilevel cell (MLC) technology, but its lower write endurance and signal interference have relegated it mostly to consumer drives. Process geometries are shrinking, leading experts to conclude that TLC will overtake MLC as the main memory configuration for enterprise-class SSDs.

If that pattern sounds familiar, it's because MLC went through a similar evolution from playing second-fiddle to the more expensive single-level cell (SLC) flash to overtaking SLC in enterprise deployments.

"I think we'll see triple-level cell stuff start showing up more often in the data center in the next year or so. It has a lot of use cases for applications that are very read-heavy and where performance is critical," said George Crump, president of IT analyst firm Storage Switzerland.

Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. in 2014 started shipping its new 845DC EVO Series of 6 Gbps TLC-based SSDs in 240 GB, 480 GB and 960 GB capacities. Marvell Semiconductor launched production this year on a SATA-based SSD controller that packs highly dense circuitry on its TLC NAND chipset.

4. NVMe standards fuel new PCIe adoption

PCIe-based SSDs continued to make progress, and their value was highlighted by SanDisk's $1.1 billion acquisition of PCIe card leader Fusion-io in July. The industry also moved closer to standardizing PCIe flash devices through the non-volatile memory express (NVMe) specification, a consortium of more than 80 vendors. HGST, Intel Corp. and Samsung each released NVMe-compliant PCIe-based enterprise SSDs. New fabric technologies emerged that could overcome distance limitations associated with PCIe networking.

3. Accelerated interest in flash caching

Momentum for flash caching tools has been building for several years, but may have reached critical mass this year. The global market for flash cache software tools is expected to top $350 million by 2019, with double-digit compound annual growth, according to analyst firm Gartner Inc. This growth is driven by larger and more complex applications, along with companies' reluctance to overprovision storage to boost throughput.

In 2014, Pernix Data Inc. upgraded its server-side Flash Virtualization Platform to enable customers to use RAM, flash or some combination on a Pernix cluster. The vendor supports file protocols with direct-attached storage, Fibre Channel, Fibre Channel over Ethernet, iSCSCI SANs and NAS. Also, Western Digital subsidiary HGST unveiled ServerCache software for Windows Server and Linux operating systems that combines write-through, write-back caching and warm cache.

2. All-flash array pioneers continue to impact the storage market

Smaller vendors pumped out a steady stream of SSD-based array technology for SMBs, midrange workloads and enterprise use. Nimbus Data kicked things off in February, launching its Gemini X Series arrays that pack 96 TB of raw storage in a box with scalability up to 1 PB per cluster. Pure Storage added the 1U controller FlashArray (FA)-405 and the 2U controller FA-450 enterprise models. Tegile Systems Inc. expanded its all-flash portfolio, introducing T3800 arrays with scalable capacity to 336 TB and lower-capacity T3600 and T3700 AFAs with 9.6 TB and 24 TB, respectively. SolidFire replaced midrange arrays with the high-density SF2405 and SF4805 flash platforms priced at less than $100,000. Kaminario added inline data reduction to boost performance of its K2 block storage systems, along with thin provisioning and SSD shelves for scale-up storage.

Violin Memory and Nimble Storage -- vendors who became public companies in 2013 but remain tiny compared to the major storage companies -- also advanced their flash portfolios. AFA vendor Violin released its Concerto 2200 with inline deduplication and compression, as well as pay-as-you-go pricing for its new Windows Flash Array. Nimble added an all-flash expansion shelf for hybrid flash arrays.

AFA startup Skyera left the market when Western Digital acquired the maker of the skyHawk array in December as the latest target in Western Digital's flash buying spree.

1. Legacy vendors bring AFAs into mainstream

We may look on 2014 as the year all-flash arrays reached maturity, judging by the behavior of legacy array vendors.

Parlaying technology it inherited by acquiring Texas Memory Systems Inc., IBM unveiled the FlashSystem 840 platform that scales to 48 TB of usable storage in a 2U rack equipped with densely packed enterprise multilevel cell flash. EMC rolled out its entry-level 5TB, six-node Starter X Brick configuration for XtremIO arrays, and Hewlett-Packard added 1.92 TB commercial SLC SSDs and hardware-assisted data reduction designed to lower the cost per gigabyte of its 3PAR StorServ 7450 AFAs. NetApp made its long-awaited FlashRay single-node arrays available in beta mode, with general availability scheduled in 2015, and Dell launched an all-flash version of its entry-level SC4020 Compellent array with a $25,000 starting price.

Next Steps

TLC flash: The low-cost SSD alternative

How NVMe factors into PCIe SSD development

What you must know about flash caching

Understand all-flash array vendor performance claims

Dig Deeper on All-flash arrays

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It's going to be interesting to see what happens when the all-flash drives start getting performance degradation (as described here: Hopefully organizations that are implementing these drives are setting aside money to replace them and keeping an eye on their performance as they age. In the same way that changing out all your light bulbs means they all die at the same time, it'd be a bummer to have all your storage go south at once.